Fall is easily my favorite season for grilling, and we’re going strong these days at the ABL manse.
I am always a little amazed folks don’t grill more – for us, it’s probably 2-3 times per week at a minimum.
But one of the reasons people don’t is that grilling can be expensive, involve difficult preparation, and risk significant screwups.
Almost every type of meat has some drawbacks. Steaks are really easy to prepare, but they’re not cheap, and there is a real risk of bungling it (especially if your audience wants them cooked to different doneness). Rack of lamb is one of my favorite meals, but when the melting fat turns my grill into a volcano, it’s a little stressful (especially given how expensive it is).
The idea that you spend a bunch of time and money and end up with a charred lump of non-food leaves many a would-be master griller stuck with hot dogs and frozen Costco burger patties.
But today is the day that all changes. Today, we’ll introduce a recipe that is definitely at the efficient frontier of grilling. It’s cheap, easy, almost foolproof, and fun to present.
Today we introduce beer can chicken.
Why is beer can chicken (affectionately known as “dancing chicken” in my house) so awesome? Let’s count the ways:
- Cheap? Definitely. Even if I buy “organic” chicken it costs less than $10 and feeds more than four.
- Easy to prepare? One of the easiest. It can get a little messy spicing up a full bird, but it’s easy to do and easy to clean.
- Low or no risk of screwing it up? One of the best recipes for this. Your main risk is undercooking it or dropping it, and both of those are easily addressed.
- Bonus: it looks really cool.
Your ingredients are pretty simple. You need a whole chicken, some sort of spice / seasoning, and a 12 ounce beer can. The only tools I use are two big sets of tongs.
You can put pretty much any rub you like on the chicken. I used to make a really complicated brown sugar-based rub, but it was overly sweet and almost overwhelmed the chicken. I tried simpler spicing strategies, and they quickly won the votes to become the standard. Nowadays I either use:
- Mrs. Dash Garlic & Herb Seasoning, garlic salt, and pepper; or
- Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning (which is a little spicy, but awesome on almost anything) and pepper
Dry, Season, Mount, and Season Some More
Dry off the bird with paper towels, and apply the seasoning. Go light with salt but heavy / to taste with everything else. Lay the bird flat to do the back and breast, and use all sorts of angles to get the various nooks and crannies. The one place that’ll be hard to season with it flat is the top / neck area, but you’ll get that in a second.
Drink a little less than one half of the beer can, then mount your chicken on the can. Make sure it slides all the way up – as far as possible. Your chicken should have good posture on the can – if it doesn’t, the can may be in only partway. (Note: some folks open up additional openings in the can, and some put some seasoning in the beer itself. I don’t think either is necessary.)
With your chicken mounted, finish spicing up any areas that need it.
One charge levied against beer can chicken is that it’s a little difficult (and, once hot, dangerous) to carry around a chicken tripod to and from the grill.
When I’m headed to the grill, I just balance the chicken tripod on a plate, but I of course like to live life on the edge.
When the chicken is done (and on the way to the grill, if you’re a more timid soul), I firmly grab it under the wings with a big set of tongs and hold it securely, upright, on a plate.
You’ll need a helper with doors – never one-hand a dancing chicken on a plate.
To the Grill
I cook dancing chicken on indirect heat roughly 300-325°.
Normally, you’d heat up the grill to your desired temp and then put it on. I make an exception for beer can chicken, which may be a bit amateur but makes full use of dancing chicken’s forgiving nature. I put the chicken on the grill, THEN fire it up. It doesn’t take long (using direct heat) to get to my target temperature, so I then switch to indirect heat and keep it there. And in this way, I can make sure, with no risk of singeing my hands, that the legs and can form a secure tripod.
There are various products (google “beer can chicken rack”) that hold the can secure and help prevent the chicken tipping over. I’ve tried them and they work, but I’ve found that just using a can is fine for me. I’ve only had one chicken fall over back in my rookie days, and I was able to right it with two sets of tongs (and amazingly, no one was the wizer).
I cook the bird for at least 75 minutes. Normally I’ll go 90 or more. You should make sure that every single part of the bird is cooked to 165° or higher. A good sign that the bird is cooked is crispy, browning skin and clear juice dripping down.
I’ve never overcooked a dancing chicken – one time I kinda forgot about it and cooked it for over two hours. It was delicious.
I have, however, undercooked one, and that is a major problem. Once you’ve pulled the can out and served the chicken, it’s difficult to get it back on the grill, and it’s embarrassing to go the microwave route. On your first attempt, I’d err long on cooking time.
To the Table
Removing dancing chicken from the grill is one of the riskiest bits of the whole venture. I use two sets of tongs.
With one set, I grab the bird under the wings. Hold it securely, but try not to shift the tongs back and forth against the skin – it’ll rub the skin off and seriously hurt your aesthetics. While moving to the plate, I grab the beer can with the other set of tongs to help secure the load. Don’t squeeze the beer can too hard or you’ll crush it, but you want to make sure the beer can doesn’t slip out and spill hot beer on you.
Once on the plate, I just use the tongs under the wings to hold it firmly while I bring it in. If you somehow lose your handle and the bird starts to slip, remember that the bird and beer are really hot and cost less than $10.
Once inside, I gently lift it off the plate and use my second set of tongs to unscrew (that’s the best analogy) the beer can from the body cavity. The can and the beer will be HOT, so put them somewhere safe – I place the can in the sink and let it cool during dinner.
Why Dancing Chicken Is Awesome
Some folks, including published grill masters, say that the beer keeps the chicken juicy while cooking. They also say that spices they put in the beer (a step I now skip) infuse the chicken with magical spiciness.
I’m not sure about all of that.
The main advantage I see to beer can chicken is that the metal can inserted into the body cavity makes (in my opinion) the bird cook faster and more evenly – rather than having the bird primarily cook outside to in, you’ve got a metal surface touching directly to the inside of the bird and speeding up how fast the inside cooks.
A secondary advantage is that it looks cool.
A low-cost, low-fuss, low-risk grill recipe that looks cool is indeed rare, and that’s why I love it.
Dancing Chicken Critics
My journalistic integrity requires that I present the argument against beer can chicken.
I think this guy is the harshest critic. His gripes include it’s a waste of good beer, it’s an inferior cooking technique, and it’s dangerous. Now, this guy has written more grilling books than I (full disclosure: I’ve written 0 grilling books), but I think I can handle this debate.
First, I use Keystone Light, so the jokes on you, buddy. Second, his “inferior technique” argument isn’t important (IMO) and also shows he skipped high school science class. Finally, his “dangerous” charge states that a) spilling hot beer and fat could burn you badly and b) there’s a risk of undercooking since “the cavity is not heated from within”. To which I’d answer: a) no s*** – so take precautions so you don’t spill, and b) I’m pretty sure a metal beer can sitting on a metal grill at 325° will heat the cavity from within – I can hold my hand in the air over a hot grill for a few seconds, and I can hold a beer can on a hot grill for no seconds at all.
Even with our differences, though, this guy and I both agree roast chicken is yummy. If you’re worried about trying dancing chicken, use his recommendations for alternative (albeit less cool-looking) ways to try.
Dancing Chicken: The Gateway Recipe
If you want to take your first tentative steps into a wider grilling world, dancing chicken is a great place to start. For less than $10, you can try a recipe that will taste great and be a delight to the eyes.
If you mess up, it’s no big deal. But if you master it and add it to your arsenal, it’ll be a confidence-inspiring and cool part of your growing grill portfolio. Perfecting dancing chicken is awesome in its own right, but it can be the gateway to adding more challenging and exotic recipes to the mix.
Have you ever cooked dancing chicken? How did it go? Let me know any questions you have below. Good luck and happy grilling!